Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reading about Paul...

I just finished reading the "Titus" volume in the series "Paul's Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith." (I've also read "Timothy," "Priscilla and Aquila" and "Apollos".) The series looks at Paul and his many collaborators under the lens of the social sciences, as a way of highlighting how Paul's social context and its expectations as a "collectivist" society differ (at times drastically) from the ways we relate in society today, especially in our highly individualized American culture. Each book seems to focus on one dimension of 1st century Mediterranean culture; for example, the volume on Titus especially considered the concept of "honor" and how Paul's writings reflect his concern to demonstrate himself as a person who possessed "honor" even when he seemed to have transgressed the typical codes of honor by leaving his collectivist group of origin.

The need for "honor" wasn't some sort of extrinsic buttress to self-esteem: it was, in a way, one's identity card. Where you got your "honor" indicated the collectivity that stood behind you. If you had "honor," you had a place in society from which to function. (The opposite of a man of honor was a fool.) As an honorable person, Paul could recommend another person, Titus, for reception by the Corinthians; he could vouch for him as another person of honor whom the Corinthians would, in turn, be honored in hosting. When Titus returned to Paul, he "honored" the Corinthians by testifying to their hospitality and fellowship. On the other hand, when Paul's honor was impugned by certain people among the Corinthians, he reacted strongly--not out of personal ego, but out of the urgent need to defend his message (not just himself) as honorable and worthy of reception. Ultimately, of course, Paul claimed that he got his honor and his message from the same "patron": God.

I also have to admit that, not being a social scientist myself and therefore not having a broad handle on the shape of 1st century Judaism, I am not totally convinced by the series' conviction that the "Greeks" Paul preached to were really the diaspora of Israel. For example, the volume on Timothy says that most likely Timothy's father, identified in Acts as "a Greek," was almost certainly a descendent of Israel, but that in the diaspora they did not practice circumcision; that this and other Jewish markers were really characteristic only of the "Judeans." Well, maybe. But I can't see extrapolating from that theory to then claiming that all of Paul's audience of "Greeks" were really non-Judean Israelites. (Paul, after all, did write to the Corinthians that some of them had, until recently, been worshipers of mute idols. Unless the reference is to apostate Israelites, called back to the God of their fathers...) Maybe I just misunderstood the many references to those who "identified as Israel."

There's a lot to recommend the series as a whole, but I have to admit that it tends to be a bit of a slog to get through. The authors are so careful to limit themselves to a strictly "social science" reading that they cross every technical "t" along the way. The reading is hampered by jargonized expressions that protect the scientific objectivity but compromise the very reason a person would most likely read books on the subject of Paul and his social network.

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